“God Help the Outcast”
A sermon preached by The Rev. Douglas M. Donley
August 19, 2018
University Baptist Church
The hunchback of Notre Dame was one of my kids’ favorite Disney movies growing up. Becca reminded me last night that a copy of it lived on the TV cart at UBC and that she and Amanda watched it over and over again while I was working or at a rehearsal. She said it was the only movie UBC had that wasn’t a Jesus movie. I actually think it is a metaphoric Jesus movie. For those of you unfamiliar with it, the cast includes the creative and misunderstood Quasimodo who pined not only for the gypsy Esmeralda, but for acceptance; the sinister Frollo, keeper of the enslaved Quasimodo who instilled in him that his deformity was offensive to God; the gargoyle friends of Quasimodo who crack jokes. Quasimodo sees all from his perch in the bell tower, just as Esmeralda sees all from the level of her sewer-dwelling friends, the common folk often ignored by the nobility. Victor Hugo wove a tale of redemption.
There are some who say that Hugo wrote the novel in part to celebrate the grand old Cathedral and to rail against efforts to modernize it by removing stained glass and art. The novel takes pains to describe the cathedral in intimate detail, perhaps to preserve the 1830’s memory of it.
The highpoint of the show is when Esmeralda walks into the cathedral, a place she is not officially welcome, but has sought sanctuary nonetheless as she flees from those who are threatened by the free-spiritedness that she embraces. Looking at the statue of Jesus as an infant in Mary’s arms and on the cross, she begins her prayer: “I don’t know if you can hear me or if you’re even there. I don’t know if you’ll listen to a gypsy’s prayer.” Does God listen to a non-Christian prayer? I’d like the think so. She continues, “I know I’m just an outcast. I shouldn’t speak to you. But still I look at you and wonder were you an outcast too?” She asks if Jesus had been misunderstood, maligned, used for another’s profit or gain.
Was Jesus an outcast?
Let’s see, he was conceived out of wedlock in a backwoods town. People often said, “Nothing good can come out of Nazareth.”
His parents had to travel a hundred miles on foot to be counted in a census.
He was rejected by his extended family when he got there and had to be born in a stable.
King Herod tried to kill him and anyone else his age and his race.
He fled to Egypt as a refugee, seeking political asylum in a foreign country.
He returned home, preached his first sermon some thirty years later and the townspeople sought to throw him off a cliff.
He touched lepers, befriended widows, and prisoners, making him continually ceremonially unclean—an outside to pure and acceptable religion.
He called on religious and political authorities to change their tax policies.
He even turned over the tables of the moneychangers at a holy festival, creating chaos in its wake—all those animals running around the streets.
He was arrested on false charges.
A kangaroo court found him guilty of blasphemy.
A Roman Governor ordered his crucifixion, something that is reserved for the crime of treason.
Yeah, I’d say Jesus was an outcast.
So Esmeralda sings, “God help the outcast hungry from birth, show them the mercy they can’t find on earth. God help my people the poor and down-trod. I thought we all were the children of God.”
She nailed it, the focus of Christianity. Will God help the outcast?
The two stories from scripture today are of outcasts helped by the Jesus, Son of God. Both are stories of women. Both of the women are unnamed. But both give a sense of who Jesus is and where his priorities lie.
In the story of the woman at the well, we have a person who is outcast because of who she is. It’s telling that she draws water from Jacob’s well in the middle of the day. Most women do so in the morning. It’s a community event, filled with gossip and camaraderie. But she’s there in the middle of the day, an outcast time of day. Left to carry her burden alone. She’s the wrong nationality for Jesus, but he speaks to her anyway. She tells the story of her awful life. Five husbands. She’s seen as damaged goods. Maybe she was married to five abusive husbands. Maybe five people who had their way with her and cast her aside. In a time when you had to have a husband in order to be considered worthy, she had little choice. Jesus did not judge her, like others had. He listened to her story and then said, I’ll give you living water—a life worth living. That’s what Jesus gave to this outcast.
The second story is about a woman accused of adultery. She is a pawn in a trap set by the religious leaders to see if Jesus would follow the law, and condemn her to death, or be his bleeding heart self and violate the law on the grounds of compassion, thereby discrediting himself. Jesus turns the tables on the accusers and tells them that let those without sin cast the first stone of condemnation. Of course they all went away. Jesus set this outcast free.
These two unnamed women represent the love of the outcast that is central to the Gospel.
But sometimes we get the gospel wrong, or we forget about this part of the story.
The wealthy and well-off townspeople walk by Esmerelda in the church and pray to God:
“I ask for wealth. I ask for fame. I ask for glory to shine on my name. I ask for love I can possess. I ask for God and his angels to bless.”
They treat God like a wish-granter for selfish gain—wanting God to enrich them, make them famous, influential, loved. It’s no accident that they walk in a solemn processional down the center aisle.
Esmeralda stays on the sideline, in the shadow, not sure if she should be here. Not sure if the God they are praying to is the same one. But she is more tuned in to the story of Jesus than the others. She points her prayer in a different direction than the supposedly righteous. She lifts her voice in defiance and declares:
“I ask for nothing. I can get by. But I know so many less lucky than I. Please help my people, the poor and down-trod, I thought we all were the children of God.”
As she arrives in the center of the nave, she is bathed in the round feminine light of the rose window. And declares, “God bless the outcast children of God.”
I love that scene. When the bell choir was on tour a year and a half ago, several of us heard an organ concert in Notre Dame. We even ate at a café named Esmeralda. Me, I made sure I stood where Esmeralda stood, looking up at that majestic round window several stories up. I took a picture and imagined the outcasts over the centuries who have felt left out by or ignored by the church. I thought of those cast out. I thought of those who are so wounded by the church that they’ll never step foot inside, no matter how welcoming we are.
About 10 years ago, Dave Bienhoff invited our family to accompany him and his family to a fundraising dinner at Bethel College. It was to raise money for the Filipino orphanage on the tiny island of Cebu. Generations of people adopted from this orphanage make Minnesota their home. One of them who was maybe 10 years old stood up and sang with all his might, “God help the outcasts.” There wasn’t a dry eye in the place, for he was an outcast and embodied the song better than any Disney princess. Amanda and Becca told me afterwards that when they grew up they weren’t going to have children of their own, but instead adopt children from Cebu.
The plea is for God to help the outcast. But how does God do that, but by inspiring those who follow God to take up the mantle.
In this time when ICE raids happen in the middle of the night and even in broad daylight.
When children are ripped from their parents at the border.
When people can’t find housing.
When economic inequality grows.
When health care is increasingly expensive.
When Puerto Rico finally gets electricity back this week a good eleven months after the storm and the death of over a thousand people.
How do we help the outcasts?
A moral society is rightly judged not by how well off the wealthy are, but by how well we take care of the outcasts.
Many of us went to the polls on Tuesday to weigh in on the leadership of our state. These elections matter and I hope and pray that we elect people who hold values that will help the outcasts.
We are poised to offer sanctuary in this grand old building to those who might be facing deportation. I was at a prayer vigil on Tuesday morning outside the regional office of ICE. In addition to providing music along with Deidre Druk, several of us clergy and other religious leaders were ready to surround one of the speakers who was a DACA recipient. Such people have been picked up by ICE and detained, sometimes transported hundreds of miles away and never getting a fair trial, even though they have the legal right to be here in the US.
Native people who are experiencing homeless have set up a camp near the little earth reservation. It’s a relatively safe place for the makeshift community. But it’s not a long-term solution. MNDOT can clear the camp when it wants to. Medical personnel and social workers have descended on the camp to help where they can, but their assistance is limited. Where is the supportive affordable housing for people with addictions or mental health challenges. Heck where is the affordable housing for those who are not addicted? Who is the next to go out onto the street?
Our sister church in Nicaragua continues to live in fear as their government gets more repressive with no real end in sight. Creative people in both congregations are strategizing ways to help them. I know they covet our prayers and our solidarity.
I received an email from my colleague Jimmy Diggs who is a pastor in Liberia. His country is beset by poverty and the effects of an ebola virus outbreak. He is asking for assistance for his church’s vacation bible school. I’ll be wiring him some funds this afternoon. If any of you would like to help out, let me know and I’ll add some to the funds I send his way.
We pray, God help the outcasts. Help us find ways to make a difference for them.
It will certainly help them. But it will also bring us closer to God. We may well find the God we had never before met. The God who stands by those who live in the shadows. That’s the one Jesus introduced to us. That’s the one we follow.
The woman at the well went back to her Samaritan village filled with the knowledge that she was seen for who she really was. And she became an evangelist for an outcast-loving God—one who spoke the truth in love and provides life-giving water. Her new song was:
(sung) “I know we all are the children of God.”